April 29, 2011
Vice President Joe Biden has a well-earned reputation as an “iron pants” negotiator whose never-say-die style served him well for decades in the Senate.
With unwavering good cheer, a toothy smile and a willingness to spend hours, if not days, at the bargaining table, the former Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman and ranking member helped the Carter administration shepherd through the SALT II nuclear weapons treaty in the late 1970s, forged an agreement on landmark crime legislation in 1994, and matched wits with Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, the storied arch conservative, to win approval of a chemical weapons treaty in the late 1990s.
Now Biden has received another daunting assignment – this time to oversee the work of a seven-member task force appointed by Obama to try to negotiate the framework for major deficit reduction and entitlement and tax reform in the coming years – which will severely test his negotiating skills
Biden showed his stuff last December when he pulled Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., aside and negotiated a major agreement between the White House and congressional GOP leaders on tax cut extensions, unemployment insurance and additional economic stimulus spending. But whether he will succeed in finding common ground with the Republicans on some of the most controversial budget and social policy issues remains to be seen.
“His whole career, he’s been adept at bringing people together of disparate views,” said former Sen. Ted Kaufman, D-Del., who served as Biden’s chief of staff during most of Biden’s Senate career and succeeded him in the Senate after Biden was elected President Obama’s vice president. “He has an incredible ability to sit forever and to see ‘how can we make this work. Let’s try this and let’s try that.’” “They’re now attempting to use the very
economic condition they have created to
blame the victim – whether it’s organized
labor or ordinary middle-class men and
women. It’s bizarre.”
Moreover, Biden’s well-known outspokenness and tendency to shoot from the hip may not necessarily play well in tense budget talks with huge political implications. During a March Democratic fundraiser in Philadelphia, Biden said: “It’s amazing how these Republicans, the right wing of this party – whose philosophy threw us into this Godawful hole we’re in, gave us the tremendous deficits we’ve inherited. They’re now attempting to use the very economic condition they have created to blame the victim – whether it’s organized labor or ordinary middle-class working men and women. It’s bizarre. It’s bizarre.”
At a Cleveland Democratic fundraiser last week for Sen. Sherrod Brown, Biden said: "I hope a lot of you are benefiting from the top 1 percent of the Bush tax cuts. I sincerely mean that. I hope you are in a position to benefit. But those tax cuts for the next 10 years, every year, are going to cost us $500 billion a year."
“Biden is very well-situated to find the sweet spot, if one exists,” said veteran political analyst Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. “The question is whether there is any possibility of a deal out of that group.”
Biden could not be reached for comment for this article.
Obama assigned Biden to head up the task force after the president outlined his long-term proposals earlier this month for reducing the deficit by $4 trillion over the next dozen years. The negotiators were given until late June to report back with recommendations. Their first meeting is scheduled May 5.
The bipartisan group includes: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii.
Already the Republicans have complained
about the task force, including how many
people should have seats at the table.
Cantor and Kyl are better known for their partisanship than their bargaining skills. Already the Republicans have complained about the task force, including how many people should have seats at the table and whether it even makes sense to meet.
"I'm at a loss to understand what the purpose is," Cantor recently told The Washington Post. He said Obama had not set a firm timeline for any decisions, although lawmakers from both parties are calling for some agreement on deficit reduction before the government reaches a debt limit in the coming months on how much money it can borrow.
This “Gang of Seven” shouldn’t be confused with the Senate’s “Gang of Six,” a group of three Democrats and three Republicans attempting to draft consensus legislation to embrace the key recommendations of the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform’s deficit reduction plan. Those senators include Kent Conrad, D-N.D., Richard Durbin, D-Ill., Mark Warner, D-Va., Tom Coburn, R-Okla., Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.
Biden recently named Bruce Reed, a veteran of budget talks, as his chief of staff. Reed was also the top aide on the presidential fiscal commission, which was co-chaired by Democrat Erskine Bowles and former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming. Reed, a former domestic policy adviser to the Clinton administration, played a critical role in helping Bowles and Simpson pull together their far-ranging deficit reduction recommendations last November.
“…it will be to their political benefit to
compromise, especially in the next election.”
Roy Meyers, a political science professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, and an expert on budget talks, has his doubts. He said in an interview with The Fiscal Times that the outcome of the negotiations will depend on “calculations by each participant that it will be to their political benefit to compromise, especially in the next election.”
If Biden has a modus operandi in negotiations, it is to look for places where there already is some basic agreement on principle and build on that, according to some who have sat with him in meetings. During the 1997 talks on a chemical weapons treaty, Biden sat with his polar political opposite, Helms, and said, “Ok, Jesse, let’s see line-by-line what we can agree on,” recalled Kaufman. The SALT II agreement to limit strategic launchers was reached in Vienna on June 18, 1979, and was signed by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and President Carter.
Just weeks after the election,
his wife, Neilia, and one-year-old
daughter, Naomi, were killed, and his
two young sons critically hurt in a car crash.
In response to the refusal of the Senate to ratify the treaty, Biden, then a young member of the Foreign Relations Committee, met with the Soviet Foreign Minister Andrey Gromyko, "educated him about American concerns and interests" and secured several changes that neither the Secretary of State nor Carter could obtain.“On the Salt II treaty too, he was all about getting to consensus,” Kaufman said.
Biden’s patience has come through a life of trial and trauma. He was elected to the Senate in 1972 at the age of 29 and appeared to be on a fast track. But just weeks after the election, his wife, Neilia, and one-year-old daughter, Naomi, were killed, and his two young sons critically hurt in a car crash.
He was sworn in at his sons’ besides and began commuting by train every day from Wilmington, Del., to Washington. He married Jill Jacobs Biden, in 1977 and they raised three children, Beau, who is the current Attorney General of Delaware, Hunter, an attorney, and Ashley, a social worker.
After dropping out of the 1988 presidential campaign, Biden suffered a severe brain aneurysm that might have killed him had he still been on the campaign trail and more willing to ignore the headaches.
Part of his talent is his genial demeanor and what appears to be a sincere desire to be friendly and helpful. But hidden beneath the smile are long years of study on policy, both foreign and domestic, and a deep understanding of what it takes to make Washington work.
“The trauma from the failed presidential race the first time around, the [brain] aneurysm and the passage of time gave him a different perspective and have matured him,” Ornstein said of Biden. “Now, the dominant factor is those strengths, his keen intelligence and a personality such that almost everybody likes him and almost nobody hates him. And he has a real understanding of how Washington operates, not to mention the world.”
The Biden Commission: A Whole New Gang of Six (The Hill)
Biden, Cronies Ran Up Budget (Clarion Ledger)
Embracing Ryan Budget, GOP Derides ‘Biden Commission’ (The Hill)